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USDA to spend $500M extending high-speed internet to rural America

By Jacob Fischler 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will send more than $500 million in loans and grants to telecommunications providers to bring high-speed internet to rural areas across 20 states, officials have said.

The department will spend $360 million in grants and $141 million in loans through its ReConnect Program to benefit sparsely populated communities, including in Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon and Tennessee. The funding, the third round from the department’s ReConnect program, combined with additional money from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law enacted last year, would make a major difference in connecting rural populations and businesses, Vilsack said.

“We now have for the first time a genuine opportunity to literally cover all of America,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, told reporters on a Sept. 22 press call. “With the ReConnect program round three and the resources available under the infrastructure law, I think we’ve come a long way to improving and increasing the level of service.”

The department will also provide more funding to rural internet programs through the bipartisan infrastructure law “in the coming months,” according to a department news release. More ReConnect awards would also be announced in coming weeks, the department said.

The current funding stream was targeted to upgrade existing infrastructure, Vilsack told reporters.

“The beauty of this process is USDA has a very specific role,” he said. “That goal is to essentially increase the capacity of existing facilities.”

The two largest allotments were both grants for Alaska communities.

The Alaska Telephone Company will receive $33 million to deploy a fiber network to connect 211 people and five business in Haines Borough, the Hoonah-Angoon Census Area and the Skagway Municipality.

USDA will provide Arctic Slope Telephone with $31 million for a similar network to connect 476 people, 15 businesses and a public school in the North Slope Borough.

Other projects include:
    •    A $13.8 million grant to serve western Colorado.
    •    A $6.3 million grant for counties on both sides of the Kansas-Nebraska border.
    •    A $25 million grant for the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa in Michigan. The project is meant to serve reservation and non-reservation Sault Ste. Marie communities, as well as nearby “vulnerable communities”
    •    $25 million split between a grant and loan for a project in Freeborn County, Minnesota.
    •    A $12.4 million loan for Barton County, Missouri.
    •    A $24.7 million grant for two counties in southern North Carolina.
    •    A $20.5 million grant-loan for eastern Oregon.

Pennsylvania Capital Star is part of the States Newsroom, a network of similar news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

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